5/21/10 - crop rotation

In today's excerpt - the Dutch invent crop rotation in the late 1500s. For thousands of years, all societies had been subsistence societies, barely able to feed their inhabitants since low agricultural productivity meant a permanent scarcity of labor and land. This left precious few resources available for invention and innovation, but then came the breakthrough—because of their extreme scarcity of land, the Dutch were driven to find a better way to use land, freeing resources and setting the stage for the Industrial Revolution:

"Agriculture throughout the world was woefully unproductive because cropping drained the land of its fertility. The traditional remedy for soil exhaustion was allowing land to become fallow to recapture its fertility, but this took a third or a quarter of acres under tillage out of production. Farmers could also restore fertility by adding nitrogen to the soil. Their principal source of this came from animals that unfortunately had to be to stay alive and defecate, taking even more land away from producing food for the people. Breaking through this bind of declining soil fertility took a bundle of mutually enhancing practices. Fortunately Dutch farmers had been experimenting with possible improvements for many decades.

"Some farmers in the Netherlands realized that they could abandon the old medieval practice of leaving a third of the land to lie fallow each year. This move increased the number of tilled acres by a third. Instead of the fallow rotation, they divided land into four parts, rotating fields of grain, turnips, hay, and clover each season. Not only did this increase the number of tilled acres by a third, but the clover fed livestock after it had enriched the soil with its nitrogen deposits. The virtuous circle of growth replaced the vicious circle of decline. When some landlords and farmers responded to the possibility of becoming more productive, they were taking the first permanent steps away from the age-old economy of scarcity.

"English farmers copied the Dutch and succeeded in making their agricultural base feed more and more people with fewer laborers and less investment. Unlike the Dutch, the English had enough arable land to grow the grains that fed the people as well as their livestock. The Dutch could not produce what was needed to get their people through a year. With their profits from trade, they could store grain, but this life saving program got more and more expensive. ...

"While some English farmers copied the Dutch four-field rotation, others adopted up-and-down husbandry. In this routine, a farmer would crop his best land for three or four years and then put it in pasture for another five, during which time the animal manure and nitrogen-fixing crops would rebuild the fertility necessary for growing grains again. As in the Dutch system, land was no longer left fallow but always growing some crop, whether for animals or humans. Every element on the farm was put to some use; every hand, given new tasks. These innovations made urgent a farmer's attentiveness because of their interlocking qualities. Both the Dutch and English began to flood meadows to warm the soil in winter and extend the growing season. Over the course of the century all these improvements raised the seed to yield ratio, the labor to yield ratio, and the land to yield ratio. Or more simply, they led to bigger harvests from fewer acres, less labor, and fewer seeds."


Joyce Appleby


The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Joyce Appleby


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